Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Scientists are responding to the coronavirus pandemic at breakneck speed, testing vaccines and dozens of treatments, but there are hard limits to how fast science can produce the answers we need.

Why it matters: The full-throttle pace of pandemic science is likely here to stay and could carry over to other fields. That means getting comfortable with the limits and drawbacks of such speed to inform the response to this crisis — and prepare for the next one.

What’s happening: Genetic sequencing, AI tools, collaborations and preprint servers where researchers publish their work before it is peer-reviewed are all fueling the rapid accumulation of information about SARS-CoV-2.

  • 10 days after the coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, researchers in China published the sequence of the virus genome and scientists around the world started to develop diagnostic tests for the disease. (During the 2003 SARS outbreak, samples of the virus took weeks to arrive from China, and sequencing cost more and took even longer.)
  • The genetic evolution of SARS-CoV-2, seen in more than 4,300 samples from around the world, is being used to track changes in the virus.
  • New approaches to developing vaccines have already put a handful of vaccine candidates into clinical trials.
  • AI is being used to more quickly assess and adjust treatments for the disease.

The catch: The speed of science in this pandemic has raised concerns about the quality of what is being published and the possibility that unreviewed early research could feed into disinformation (though some argue the benefits outweigh the drawbacks).

  • And it can be hard to make sense of the sheer quantity of science being done and data produced. Scientists are creating new tools to keep up with the deluge of information.

The big picture: The automation of experiments and the ability to amass vast datasets are already altering the fundamental practice of science in areas from astronomy to biology, raising tensions between information and knowledge. In a pandemic, there is the added pressure of doing no harm, as the debate over hydroxychloroquine demonstrates.

  • Early reports suggested the drug, which is used to treat malaria and lupus, was an effective treatment, causing prescriptions to spike and encouraging the stockpiling of it around the world.
  • But hydroxychloroquine is still undergoing clinical trials and, so far, there is no substantial evidence it is effective and the FDA cautions it carries risks for some people.

Another open question is how much immunity people have after being infected with SARS-CoV-2. "Reinfection is a story that simply can't be told without time," says Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

  • It requires identifying people who are infected, sequencing the virus from them, tracking how long they shed the virus, and sequencing it again to determine if the virus is different and therefore likely represents a new infection, he says. And reinfection needs to be studied across large numbers of people to determine if it is common.
  • "The first really good studies on this will take six months to a year," he predicts.

Vaccines also take time to test their safety and effectiveness (not to mention manufacture and distribute).

  • Trials that deliberately infect people with the virus and, in the future, new ways of designing vaccines may speed the process, but only so much.

What to watch: One way to eke out more from science when a crisis unfolds is to be ready before the crisis begins.

  • National security should be expanded to include health security, and international scientific collaborations that are fueling the speed of pandemic science should be supported in preparation for the next crisis, health security expert Gigi Gronvall of Johns Hopkins University argues in a new paper.
  • Dario Gil, director of IBM Research and a member of President Trump's science advisory council, is calling for the creation of a reserve corps of scientists to address crises.
  • Bill Gates is investing in manufacturing facilities for seven different potential vaccines, acknowledging some won't pan out.

The bottom line: Understanding the limits and drawbacks of speedy science matters now more than ever because in crises — of which there will certainly be more — the stakes are even higher.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Aug 22, 2020 - Health

Better testing can fight more than the pandemic

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

New coronavirus diagnostics could eventually enable near-constant testing — and herald a future where even common infections no longer go undiagnosed.

Why it matters: Rapid testing could be especially important during the winter, when it will become vital to quickly distinguish between an ordinary cold or flu and a new disease like COVID-19.

Aug 26, 2020 - Health

Carson: It would "behoove" us to move forward with COVID-19 vaccine and treatment testing

Screenshot: Axios Events

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says "this is not necessarily the time to take everything slowly" when it comes to the Trump administration's approach to getting vaccines and treatments to the public.

Why it matters: Carson's comments, made Wednesday during an Axios virtual event, came days after the Food and Drug Administration announced an emergency use authorization (EUA) for treating the coronavirus with convalescent plasma. President Trump accused the agency of slow-walking the development and approval of vaccines and therapeutics to hurt him politically.

Navarro says need for randomized trial on plasma is a "crazy talking point"

White House economic adviser Peter Navarro said on Tuesday that recommendations from health experts that convalescent plasma undergo a randomized trial as a COVID-19 treatment before receiving an emergency authorization are a "crazy talking point."

Why it matters: Top federal health officials urged the FDA last week to hold off on issuing an emergency use authorization for the safe, but unproven treatment, but the agency went ahead with it on Sunday amid pressure from Navarro and Trump.